For the Love of Coffee, Do Something About Climate Change

Humans may survive climate change, but if coffee doesn’t make it, too, what’s the point?

Photo by Chloe Leis on Unsplash

The looming climate crisis isn’t news. Sir David Attenborough is reminding us about it practically by the hour. So are activists like Greta Thunberg. But while its impact is often discussed with sweeping generalizations – rising temperatures, extreme weather events, etc., — that’s soon to change.

If you can imagine starting your day without a proper cuppa, congratulations. Most adult humans can’t. Or, rather, won’t (64 percent, according to the National Coffee Institute). We’re a coffee culture here in the U.S. and likewise around the world. It’s more than just the motivator for the morning-averse; it’s the engine behind the deadline-challenged, the energetic-opposed, the focus-impaired. But if we don’t take climate change action seriously — and soon — we may be battling more than the rising global temperatures. We may be negotiating dwindling coffee rations.

An estimated 25 million small-scale coffee growers produce the bulk of the global coffee supply. It’s typically hand-picked at the peak of ripeness. Central America, one of the biggest coffee-growing regions, is already battling climate change. In Nicaragua and Guatemala, droughts in 2016 and 2017 dramatically slowed production. Rain finally came, but the soil was so damaged that entire crops were rendered useless. 

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A Complicated Cup

Already operating near poverty levels, a number of Central American farmers and coffee pickers fled the region after the droughts. 

For those who stayed, the low yields meant going into debt and shrinking harvests just to keep the farms in business. 

According to Columbia University’s Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment , as much as 75 percent of Arabica coffee-growing land across the globe could become unsuitable for growing by 2050. Arabica is the most common coffee species. It grows along the “coffee belt” from Ethiopia and Sumatra to Costa Rica and Colombia.

Arabica needs to grow at temperatures between 17° and 21°C, typically on mountainside farms at ranges of elevation, from 1,800 to 6,300 feet above sea level.  Temperatures are already up 1.5°C in those regions and could go up another 1.3°C in the coming decades.

Unpredictable weather patterns are ideal conditions for a devastating fungus called coffee leaf rust. It can lead to smaller yields, cutting harvests by as much as 80 percent.

The changing climate is threatening yields; it’s also threatening flavor.

“Coffee, like wine, gets some of the complexity of its flavor from slower maturation,” Hanna Neuschwander, director of strategy and communications at World Coffee Research told Fast Company. “That’s probably one of the first things [that climate change] will impact. You can start impacting both flavors and production qualities. Eventually, once it gets super hot enough, you might get to a situation where the plant just can’t even survive anymore.”

A world without coffee? Apocalypse indeed.

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Starbucks to the Rescue?

The impact won’t happen overnight, say experts like Neuschwander. Regions that can produce more coffee as others start to dry up will do just that. In some places that means yields will increase. But at the same time, some coffee species may become even less available, even going extinct.

“It’s not like we’re not going have any coffee in 2050,” says Neuschwander. “Someone will produce it. But what will it taste like, and how expensive will it be? What’s the ability to retain those more interesting, flavorful, nuanced coffees? I’m not even talking about the $30-a-pound single-origin stuff. I’m talking about the stuff that gets layered into Folgers to make it taste more interesting than just cardboard.”

Coffee chain giant Starbucks is now working to improve conditions for coffee farmers. It’s donating millions of trees as well. 

“Twenty million farmers and their families are impacted in coffee-growing regions around the world. And our ambitions are that we’re strengthening the land in which they’re farming, we’re increasing their yield and productivity,” says Michelle Burns, senior vice president of coffee and tea at Starbucks.

“We work hand in hand with farmers in an open-source agronomy environment on the ground, which is really key, because whether we’re buying the coffees or not, we are committed to ensuring that we’re all working together toward the big bold ambition.” 

But better breeding isn’t a cure-all, warns Kaitlin Cordes, one of the authors of a 2019 Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment report. Like other climate experts, Cordes points to the larger climate crisis and its interconnectedness to all things.

“[W]e won’t be able to breed our way out of all the climate change impacts that will arise,” says Cordes. “In a lot of places where coffee currently is grown, at some point, it seems pretty clear that coffee production will no longer be viable in those places.”

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